In this article:
- What are over-the-counter thyroid glandulars?
- Concerns about glandular supplements
- Difference between thyroid medication, vitamin supplements, and glandular supplements
- Natural desiccated thyroid vs. glandular supplements
- How to best treat hypothyroidism
There is an overwhelming number of supplements and vitamins on the market. Whether you are looking to help your digestive tract, care for menopause symptoms, lubricate your joints, or optimize your thyroid, there is undoubtedly a supplement aimed to support your specific needs. Yet, not all supplements are created equal. Learning what is in your supplements is particularly important if you are treating a condition like hypothyroidism. Here's what you need to know about over-the-counter thyroid glandular supplements.
What are over-the-counter thyroid glandulars?
Over-the-counter glandular supplements contain tissues taken from animals. These tissues come from hormone-producing organs in animals, such as the:
Essentially, these animal tissues are dried and ground up for use in supplements and medications. Typically, glandular tissues come from cows, sheep, and pigs. Glandular supplements can be purchased over-the-counter and are commonly in health food stores, pharmacies, or online.
Some people may base the choice to use glandular therapy on the following theory that "like heals like." This theory implies that taking a supplement that contains thyroid glandular tissue may help heal your thyroid gland if you a thyroid condition.
Ingesting animal organs and glands for healing has been used throughout human history. For example, if a doctor thought their patient had liver problems, they may have been encouraged to eat beef liver. As scientific theories advanced, some providers began injecting and transplanting animal tissues into humans for research in the early 1900s. However, there is still much debate over whether or not using glandular tissues is safe for humans.
Concerns about thyroid glandular supplements
Most practitioners advise against taking over-the-counter thyroid glandular supplements because they are not well regulated and sometimes contain additives that may harm your thyroid. The FDA does not regulate supplements, which means they can hit the market without sufficient safety and efficacy testing.
Although glandular supplements are not supposed to contain active thyroid hormones, some manufacturers may add active hormones. Still, the dosing is not regulated. In a 2014 study, 9 out of 10 thyroid glandular supplements tested positive for containing greater than the recommended daily dose of T3. The same study also found that 5 out of 10 glandular supplements had both T3 and T4. Furthermore, this study found that some plant-based (botanicals) thyroid supplements also contained active thyroid hormone.
There are several problems with using active hormones in supplements.
- Firstly, the supplements do not state that they contain active thyroid hormones, which means the manufacturers mislead people.
- Secondly, the dosing is not standardized. Thus, the amount of active hormone may not be the same from one pill or bottle to the next.
- Thirdly, there is a risk for thyrotoxicosis because people may receive too much thyroid hormone, especially in people who are sensitive to even low doses of thyroid hormone.
Furthermore, thyroid glandular supplements also contain active ingredients that may throw off your thyroid function, including iodine and kelp. While iodine is necessary for making thyroid hormones, too much iodine may even worsen hypothyroidism, especially if you have Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
It may be tempting to try a glandular supplement because it comes from natural sources. However, it is best to consult your thyroid doctor before searching for thyroid treatment on your own.
Understanding the difference between thyroid medication, vitamin supplements, and glandular supplements
We cannot cure hypothyroidism, but we can control it with thyroid hormone replacement medication in nearly every person with this condition. The thyroid gland produces two hormones: thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Similarly, thyroid replacement medication also comes in T4 and T3 formulations. In a healthy thyroid gland, the inactive T4 hormone is released into circulation and then converted by the body into the active T3 hormone. Often, treatment for thyroid replacement starts with T4-only formulations, assuming that the body can successfully do the conversion independently.
Suppose your body has a hard time converting T4 to T3, or you take an interfering medication. In that case, standard T4 medicines may not be sufficient for you. For the few patients who do not feel completely normal taking a synthetic preparation of T4 alone, the addition of T3 may be of benefit.
There are also combination thyroid medications—desiccated and compounded. Natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) is a prescription thyroid medication that contains active thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) from pigs. Compounded thyroid medication is a medication tailored to an individual patient's needs through combing, mixing, or altering ingredients.
Thyroid vitamin supplements
There are vitamins specifically designed to support thyroid function that does not contain glandular tissues. Typically, thyroid support vitamins contain essential nutrients that optimize your thyroid function and reduce your hypothyroid symptoms. Thyroid vitamins that do not contain kelp or iodine can be a great way to ensure you are getting your daily requirement of these nutrients.
Look for a thyroid support vitamin supplement that contains:
- Vitamins A, B12, D3
Over-the-counter thyroid glandular supplements
Some thyroid support supplements contain essential vitamins and minerals that optimize your thyroid function. However, glandular supplements also have thyroid tissues from animals and possibly active thyroid hormones. You should not use over-the-counter glandular thyroid supplements without consulting your thyroid doctor first.
Natural desiccated thyroid vs. over-the-counter glandular supplements
Understandably, it is easy to feel confused about the difference between thyroid glandular supplements and natural desiccated thyroid (NDT). NDT is a prescription thyroid medication that contains active thyroid hormones (T4 and T3) from pigs. Over-the-counter thyroid glandulars contain thyroid glands from animals but do not contain active thyroid hormones— or, at least, they shouldn't.
Manufacturers of thyroid glandulars may accidentally include active thyroid hormones in their over-the-counter supplements. This inclusion of active thyroid hormones can be dangerous as dosing thyroid hormone should be very specific and done by a doctor.
Natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) derives from the dried (desiccated) thyroid glands of pigs. It provides T3, T4, and other thyroid hormones found in the human thyroid. Pigs produce T4 to T3 at a 4:1 ratio, which is higher than the human proportion of 14:1.
Desiccated animal thyroid was the most common form of thyroid therapy before researchers discovered the individual active thyroid hormones. Some people still prefer to use NDT if they have used it for years or find it is more effective than T4-only medication.
How to best treat hypothyroidism
There is no cure for hypothyroidism at this time. If you have hypothyroidism, you will need to be on thyroid hormone replacement medication for the rest of your life.
Thyroid hormone replacement medication effectively manages and treats symptoms caused by an underactive thyroid. Your doctor can discuss various medications and help determine the right dose for you. Thyroid vitamins that do not contain glandular tissue or iodine can be a great way to support your thyroid health in addition to your medication.
We are all unique with individual sensitivities. Our bodies will not all react the same way to a specific medication or dosage. Finding the right treatment and the proper dosage is a step-by-step process that takes time and requires monitoring. You should work with a trustworthy thyroid doctor to make sure that the process is straightforward and personalized.
A note from Paloma Health
If you are interested in over-the-counter glandular thyroid supplements, we urge you to talk with your thyroid doctor about whether this is a safe option for you. Your doctor may be able to suggest a supplement rigorously tested for efficacy and standardization.